USA: reforming solitary confinement at an infamous California prison

California’s Pelican Bay Prison is the most notorious state penitentiary in America. Designed and built as a “supermax” facility, it’s been used for nearly 30 years to lock away inmates considered the most dangerous.

Pelican Bay’s security housing unit - known as “the SHU” - is solitary confinement by another name, and inmates and their advocates have long denounced it as state-sanctioned torture.

The people who run California’s prisons defended their approach for decades. But as we first reported last October, they are now at the center of a reform movement that is dramatically reducing the use of solitary confinement across the country and at Pelican Bay.

ARON FRANKLIN: Hi, nice to meet you.
OPRAH WINFREY: Nice to meet you. I’m Oprah.
ARON FRANKLIN: Hi, I’m Aron. I– I know who you are.
On the other side of that steel mesh, inmate Aron Franklin is serving part of his 50 years to life sentence.
OPRAH WINFREY: What did you get 50 years to life for?

We are, most of us, going to be getting out. And it would behoove the public to begin to facilitate a healing, you know? And the healing can start with, you know a basic dignity in how we’re treated.

It was the murder of a fellow gang member in San Diego. But crimes you commit on the outside don’t get you sent to the Pelican Bay SHU. It is reserved for offenses committed once you’re in prison.

OPRAH WINFREY: Why were you brought here? Can you tell me?
ARON FRANKLIN: Just a little misunderstanding on the yard.

That “little misunderstanding” was an attack on another inmate with a weapon, and it earned him a year in solitary confinement. Franklin is in what’s known as a SHU “pod;” eight tiny cells, four up and four down, all facing the same blank wall across the way.

DANNY MURILLO: It was created to break me, mentally, physically and spiritually.

Danny Murillo, Troy Williams, and Steve Czifra all went to prison as teenagers. They were sent to the Pelican Bay SHU for what happened after they were behind bars. Steve spit on a prison guard, Troy was part of a riot at another facility, and Danny was accused of being in a prison gang.

OPRAH WINFREY: Do you remember the first day you pulled up to the SHU, taking that long bus ride, getting off the bus and seeing the place?
DANNY MURILLO: It’s a big white building with a small little door. My imagination was– a human slaughterhouse. People just going into a human slaughterhouse.
OPRAH WINFREY: What did you think, Steve?

STEVE CZIFRA: It was a modern-day dungeon. There was– I had never seen anything like it.
OPRAH WINFREY: This is– the message is, “You’re not gettin’ outta here”?
STEVE CZIFRA: The message is you– you’re screwed.

All three ultimately did get out of the SHU and out of prison.

OPRAH WINFREY: I think the feeling on the part of a lot of folks is that you committed a crime, regardless of what age you were. You got locked up. You deserve to be there. Can you tell me why we should care?

TROY WILLIAMS: We are, most of us, going to be getting out. And it would behoove the public to begin to facilitate a healing, you know? And the healing can start with, you know a basic dignity in how we’re treated.

Here inside the Pelican Bay SHU, an inmate would spend up to 22.5 hours a day in this cell, which is basically the size of a small-parking space. It’s like a windowless box with a sink and a toilet. Not just for days at a time, sometimes years, and even decades at a time, in this room, alone.

Most days, the only time a prisoner leaves his cell is to go to “the yard,” a slightly less tiny concrete box at the end of the pod, for 90 minutes of exercise.

OPRAH WINFREY: So, this is it. This is the yard. This is the extent of the yard? This–
SCOTT KERNAN: Yes. This is it.
OPRAH WINFREY: Yeah. OK. Well, I wouldn’t exactly call it a yard.

We visited the yard with Scott Kernan, who runs the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

OPRAH WINFREY: So it would just be the inmate alone out here.

On the rare occasions that an inmate leaves his pod, he first has to strip, push his clothes through a slot to be searched, then put his hands through the same slot to be cuffed. This is the only time a SHU prisoner is ever touched by another human being.


MIKE WALLACE: They do hard time here in the SHU. Time here is like hard time in no other prison.

When Mike Wallace visited Pelican Bay for 60 Minutes in 1993, prisons across the country had embraced solitary confinement as a tool to combat violence inside their walls; there was a building boom in supermax facilities, and Pelican Bay was a model.

MIKE WALLACE: The State of California that runs it proudly proclaims it’s the wave of the future, designed to isolate prisoners who, they insist, are out of control, too violent, too unpredictable to be housed with the run-of-the-mill murderers and rapists.

At its peak in the 90s, Corrections Secretary Scott Kernan says Pelican Bay’s SHU held almost 2,000 prisoners.

SCOTT KERNAN: During that period of time– I witnessed multiple murders, multiple stabbings, lives changed irreparably–

OPRAH WINFREY: Inmates stabbing each other? Stabbing corrections officers– stabbing–
SCOTT KERNAN: All of it.

Almost all of that violence, Kernan says, was and still is caused by powerful race-based prison gangs.

OPRAH WINFREY: So the gangs rule in prison?
SCOTT KERNAN: They do. The gangs rule.

In an effort to break that rule, California identified gang leaders and enforcers and sent them to Pelican Bay.

OPRAH WINFREY: So the idea was to bring them here and have them in isolation?
SCOTT KERNAN: Have them in isolation and deter their communication. And it worked.
OPRAH WINFREY: So if any inmate was validated as a gang member, he could be held here indefinitely for years or decades?

CLYDE JACKSON: 24 years, five months and six days I was there.

Clyde Jackson was sent to prison at age 17 for kidnapping, rape, robbery, and attempted murder. But it was gang ties that got him sent to pelican bay.

Clyde Jackson: Well, I was sent to Pelican Bay SHU because I was labeled as a validated gang member of the Black Guerilla Family. The design was complete isolation.

Craig Haney: One of the first things they’d say to me was “I am struggling to maintain my sanity and I don’t know how to do it.”

Craig Haney is a psychology professor at UC Santa Cruz whose studies of Pelican Bay SHU inmates have become central to arguments against the widespread use of solitary confinement.

OPRAH WINFREY: So what was the most striking result of your findings in 1992 after that first study?
CRAIG HANEY: That vast numbers of prisoners were traumatized by the experience. They were suffering, they were living in pain, and many of them were being psychologically damaged by the conditions of their confinement. And– and at– at much higher levels than even I anticipated.
CLYDE JACKSON: Your mind becomes diseased, and you start to accept the abnormal as normal.

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